Pitch Documents: Sales Meets Storytelling

By VFS Web Team, on July 26, 2016

As Head of Scripted Development at Reality Distortion Field, Film Production grad Mohamad El Masri reads a lot of scripts — a lot. He spends his days neck deep in creative, developing in-house projects, building relationships with networks and talent, and taking pitches from writers — established to never even opened up Final Draft before. Trust us when we say that these are just some of his daily tasks. The wizard behind Oz’s curtain wasn’t just playing that weird organ machine, right?

For Mohamad, the thing that drives and excites him never changes: discovering an original voice. The search isn’t always easy, but when it’s found there’s nothing quite like it.

If you’re interested in writing for television, you’ll want to keep reading. Mohamad breaks down the essential elements all pitch documents need in order to stand out from the heaping pile in any development exec’s inbox. It’s straight from the source, all. And, who knows, Mohamad might just be reading yours one day!

Showbiz is a Pitch!

Guest post by: Mohamad El Masri

There’s an insightful Jerry Seinfeld joke that goes:

 "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Writers are no different. When writers think about pitching, several things happen: Their hands clam-up, their mouth goes dry and thoughts begin to swirl about ending it all (their careers, anyway). And pitching, the fundamental moment when writers are called upon to sit in a room with a buyer, is really just another form of public speaking. Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s no way around this moment. Every writer, no matter who you are, what your relationship is with the buyer, what your reputation is — it comes down to fifteen minutes in a room or on the phone to make that pitch. There’s no avoiding it. Well, except in a casket. 

The classic set-up is that you walk into a room and pitch your project for the first time. But in today’s landscape, it’s becoming increasingly common, particularly in TV, to use a pitch document to leverage your way into the room. A pitch document is like a snowflake, no one is like the other, but you can still identify it as a snowflake. A snowflake analogy? Really? 

A pitch document can be used to entice a producer (at a production company), an agent or manager, a network/studio executive or even another writer (like a showrunner) — all ‘buyers’ — to want to talk or read more about the project. Think of it as a pre-pitch, so that when you do get in the room, whoever you’re pitching to already has context and an idea of what you’re coming in with. This gives you space and room to go deeper in the conversation. 

I know, you’re asking: well, what about the script? It’s tricky. The ultimate prize is getting someone excited enough in your vision to commission a script — but hedging your bets on that, especially as you start out, is risky. The approach is really about balancing several strategic risks. Writing a script on spec is one of those risks. The merits or pitfalls of writing on spec is another conversation, but when you’re getting out there, leading with a script (if you have one) could work in your favour — if it’s an awesome script. But it can also tank you if it’s not. So lead with a strong pitch and give the buyer room to maneuver with you, and have a sense that they can be a part of the development process — a process that begins when they commission more work from you (formally or informally). Yes, unfortunately, sometimes that means doing free work to get you across the finish line. Should you do that? There’s no universal answer because it's up to you to determine their priorities, propensity for taking risks, etc. Point being, your goal is to get them to ask to read a script, in which case if you have one then hit them with it — and you’ll have the benefit of having had their thoughts and notes in advance, so you can take the opportunity to make any adjustment to the draft before sending. If you don’t have a script, well you have interest (but not enough to trigger a commission) and also insight into the mindset of the buyer, so get writing! 

What’s important to remember is that each pitch document is different and you should cater it to the buyer, format and genre you are pitching for — let creative be the lightning rod for everything. Some are snazzy, visually driven look book documents. Many are just copy based. It’s really up to you. Whichever way you go, here are my top five (but not comprehensive) considerations when I write or read pitch documents for TV series:

1. This is a sales document first, and a story document second

Think of this as a marketing document for your idea. You’re trying to engage a captive audience and you have a short window for that engagement. It’s an ad for your project wedged in between regularly scheduled programming in a buyer or producer’s average day. This is not a bible. Story is king, obviously. So focus on that — no amount of bells, whistles and pizazz can make up for fundamental story elements. You’re not trying to win any design awards here. Focus. On. Story. But, you’re also going to benefit from exercising restraint and including the story elements that matter most. Don’t go the kitchen sink route, because you want to save the kitchen sink for the room. You want to surprise them with new elements when you go in for the meeting or jump on the phone. What distinguishes you, story wise? Is it a premise? Is it a true story element? Is it a character that no one’s ever seen? What is special about your first season? Do you have talent attached? Who is the team on the project, if any? You’re pitching the project, the creator (you!) as well as the story.

 

2. Lead with character(s)

The most important thing a buyer or producer is thinking is: who is this story about and why should I care? Most pitch documents I read make the mistake of leading with ‘this is a world where…’, when they should be leading with ’this is a story about…’. The strongest pitches almost always follow that up with a character. In short, pitch a really strong, specific and crisply shaped lead character — working inside out, build the show around that character. Everything built around a compelling character (with a fully realized and articulated character shape or arc) is window dressing. It’s make believe and can be almost anything you want it to be. Space opera. Dystopian near-future sic-fi. Legal drama. Crime thriller. Comedy. Reality show. Documentary. The rule of thumb I look for is if you strip away everything down to character and there’s still a great show, then you’re in good shape. Speaking of shape, I use that word a lot. Character shape is a little bit different from character arc, because character shape can contain ups, downs, retreads and spirals. The best characters fold in on themselves many times over — Don Draper, Nurse Jackie, Walter White. But they each have very crisp character arcs — where they start, where they end. The shape of that is everything that happens in between. Articulating the shape and arc up front is really crucial. Once you’ve set up your lead or leads, build other characters around them and the show starts to take shape. Not only story wise, but tonally — and if there’s a mythology, then the rules of that mythology begins to crystallize in ways that feel organic to the characters and the relationship dynamics that are going to drive them. 

3. Series Engine

What is going to drive the plot of the show? What is the sandbox that is going to give your characters something to do, and where their agendas, anxieties, insecurities and relationships get to play out? Is it enough to get us into season four? Ask yourself the tough question: is my series a TV show or is it a movie? Is it a novel? Is it a play? Is it all those things? Work at this until you have a sense of what this is, and be real honest with yourself — because whoever you’re pitching to is going to be wondering the same thing, if it’s not clear. But don’t feel obligated to crack every season of your show and outline it all in this document. Focus on the first season’s broad narrative touchstones, what launches us into the show, where are we midseason, and how does the first season end? How does it take us into season two?

4. The Pilot

Pretty simple. Summarize in a page or two what the first episode will be. Not everyone is going to have time to get to your script right away, if you have one. Either way, it’s a quick way for the reader to get a sense of how the series is set-up. Again, broad narrative beats (again, focus on character). Often, a really strong approach is leading with the teaser. 

5. The Big Why

The most important thing to articulate is why this story needs to be told by you, right now. Not your life story. But what are you trying to say with this project, to whom and about what? How are you going to impart your voice, sensibility and POV on this story to make it unique, specific and to help it stand out in the waterfall of noise? This is typically addressed in a Tone and Theme section of the pitch document, where you can dive into influences, references and wax a bit poetic about why this thing even exists. Ask yourself why you want this project out there. What is your objective? Is this meant as a sample of your work for a staffing position in a writer’s room? Is this a passion project you’ve been dying to make? Do you see a market opportunity? Be honest, because the person you’re pitching will see right through it if you’re not. Besides, whoever you’re pitching — they’re a lot like you. Working hard and dying to be inspired, excited and provoked to act and really sit up and take notice. They want to find you, but they also have to believe you. Ultimately, be yourself because they’re buying into you as well as the project, and what you’re all about is what’s going to allow your project to be as specific and singular as it can be. 

Thanks, Mohamad!